India (MNN) — Today is the International Women’s Day — a day dedicated to remember and affirm the value each woman holds. This year’s theme is #beboldforchange. While gender equality tends to be a heavily politicized discussion, there are so many ways that it’s a call for basic human decency. Today, we’re going to zoom in on India to look at what change would mean for women there.
If you stick to the urban areas, you’ll likely think there’s not much to complain about for women there. John Sparks of India Partners says in some of the most prestigious career fields — computer science and electrical engineering, there’s almost an equal ratio of men and women represented. Women living in the city are also much more likely to be educated. Catalyst.org says 80 percent of women in urban areas are literate.
But Sparks says if you step outside the busy cities, you’re going to experience a totally different reality.
“The biggest difference is probably urban and rural, in that the women in urban and rural in the areas of education and job opportunity are very different,” he says.
In the urban setting, he explains, even the most impoverished girls usually get some sort of education. Those who are in better financial standing seek good quality education for their girls.
Sparks explains, “The rural environment is very different. The girl child is relegated to doing household chores and often times will drop out of school at a young age because she needs to care for her siblings or help around the home and doing things like gardening, caring for animals, and household chores.”
About 70 percent of India’s population finds themselves in rural areas. That means, the largest portion of women in India are missing out on education and job training. There are a few reasons this is a problem outside the obvious fact that education enriches life.
First of all, when women face widowhood, which they often do in rural India, the options for livelihood are between bad and worse. As we’ve discussed on prior occasions with India Partners, many women find themselves working as day laborers, leaving their young children to fend for themselves. Other women enter the degrading work of prostitution, just to feed their families.
The second problem: the lack of opportunity for women goes hand-in-hand with (and perhaps even contributes to) the general degradation of women by society.
“Sorrowfully, one of the things that happens in almost any society is when they live in poverty, you’re having money troubles, the anger gets taken out on the woman.
“And figures show that 70-80 percent of all married women in India suffer some sort of physical abuse on a regular basis. And I read a report sometime back that said 46 percent of all Indian women believe that it’s okay for their husband to beat them if it’s for a good cause,” Sparks says.
Challenging a mindset
What this reveals is that not only do some men tend to view women as the lesser being, but women sometimes believe it also. Sparks says it’s an attitude that may have something to do with religion, but is mostly cultural.
“The religions of India — and there are many — the religions of India have a tendency towards minimizing the role and the value of women. But at the same time, sorrowfully, Christians also get indoctrinated by the predominant culture and think in some of the same ways,” he explains.
So the question is, how do we challenge this misconstrued attitude towards women? Sparks explains a process of affirmation, dedication, and intentionality.
Stepping into lives
One of the best ways to affect change in India is to participate in child sponsorship.
“If you sponsor a girl-child, the goal is to raise this woman up so she can be a woman who is productive in society and who demonstrates the love of Jesus Christ. And so, those things go hand-in-hand. You really develop the value of a woman when you sponsor them, you help them realize that somebody sees them as a person of value.”
Sparks own wife is a testament to the effectiveness of child sponsorship. She grew up in India. She said her sponsor changed her life. Today, she serves in a leadership role in the Church. She has two masters degrees. But best of all, her life has been transformed by the power of the Gospel.
But what about women who have already grown up, believing the lie that they have no value?
India Partners works with widows specifically who have no family to take care of them. This sponsorship program helps provide for their basic needs when all others have abandoned them. You see, widows in India often carry a stigma. Families will often cast out these women, believing them to be cursed.
Another program India Partners runs is their tailoring schools. Here, women who have no education and no work experience can embark upon a valuable profession. At the end of each term, they receive a sewing machine to begin their new career.
One of the recently opened schools is geared specifically towards women with HIV/AIDS. According to the CIA World Factbook, India is the third worst country for this disease. The fact that these women have the disease, Sparks explains, is just one more indicator of how women are valued in India. The women at the school were monogamous, loving wives. They contracted the disease from their husbands. Most only learned they had the disease when their husbands died. So, they became widows and received an early death sentence all in one day.
The school gives them a chance to earn an income for their family, claim their dignity, and even learn about how much Jesus values them.
When a woman, whether they are widowed or otherwise in dire straits, can earn an income, it takes the pressure off to just survive. They can speak to the needs of their family and provide an education for their children. In a way, Sparks says, this income can become a source of protection.
“So, it’s overcoming these things, helping women to understand they’re meant to be loved and appreciated, not to be beaten. Then also, it’s to step into lives, women that are in extreme poverty, and especially widowed women. The ability to have some sort of income helps out in the household a lot.”
So, how can you help?
Consider child sponsorship. Click here for more information.
You can also empower women by buying them a sewing machine. Click here to do that.
Sparks says you can also pray — pray for the Church in India and the pastors serving there. He says the Church is the beginning of transformation.
Pray for the ladies in the tailoring schools. They are coming from a variety of religious backgrounds. Ask God not only to transform their ability to earn an income, but to open their hearts to the Gospel.